movies

Notting Hill's most empowering moments happened behind the scenes.

Romantic comedies don’t have a particularly good reputation for being empowering for women. You know how it goes. The female lead is chasing after/pining over a bloke, until he finally ‘sees’ her, they kiss in the rain and her life is complete. But Notting Hill, which turned 20 this week (TWENTY!), is one of the few to break that mould.

Movie star Anna Scott, played by Julia Roberts, is the one with the money and power, next to foppish bookshop employee William (Hugh Grant). It’s Anna shaping the relationship from the moment they bump into each other – literally – on the streets of the London suburb. She plants the first kiss, and the second, she turns down his first invitation back to his flat, she creeps downstairs to, erm, chat when she spends the night.

Video by Universal Pictures

And off camera, Roberts was exercising that same agency. In the two decades since the film’s release, snapshots have emerged that show that some of its most feminist moments happened behind the scenes.

1. Julia Roberts called out sexist casting decisions.

Notting Hill’s writer/director Richard Curtis was forced to confront his own sexism when casting the role of Jeff, Anna’s husband.

“I remember feeling ashamed when we were trying to cast Julia Roberts’s husband in Notting Hill and she pointed out that everyone on our list was at least 20 years older than her,” Curtis told The Independent. “The reverse would never be true.”

The role was ultimately played by Alec Baldwin who is 10 years Roberts’ senior. Hey, we’ll take it.

2. She upped her (fictional) salary.

The dinner scene (quite possibly the most underrated of the entire movie, just quietly) features an awkward exchange between Anna Scott and Bernie, played by a young Hugh Bonneville, known better these days as Robert Crawley from Downton Abbey.

After being introduced to the actor, the moping stock trader – who somehow fails to recognise her as THE Anna Scott – laments how little actors typically get paid. When he probes her on how much she earned for her last film, she replies bluntly, “$15 million”.

Bonneville later revealed to The Huffington Post, that that figure (which actually matched Roberts’ real-life salary for the film) wasn’t in the script.

ADVERTISEMENT
Julia Roberts changed the script on Hugh Bonneville. Image: PolyGram Filmed Entertainment.

"When she says $15 million, that's the third take of her close-up. When we did rehearsals in the script, it said $10 million. In rehearsal she changed it to 12, and then suddenly she changed it to 15," he told the outlet. "And I said, after we finished, 'Out of interest, why did you change it?' She said, 'I'm kind of tired of lowballing!'"

The timing wasn't coincidental. A matter of weeks later, Bonneville read that Roberts had been paid $20 million for her next role in Erin Brockovich - a then-record-breaking sum for a female actor. She went on to best that figure in 2003, when she secured $25 million for Mona Lisa Smile.

3. She balked at Anna's morning-after insecurity.

Lying bed with William after their first night together, Anna poses a question: "[Actor] Rita Hayworth used to say, 'They go to bed with Gilda; they wake up with me.' ... Men went to bed with the dream; they didn't like it when they would wake up with the reality. Do you feel that way?"

To some it was a striking moment of vulnerability from the character. To Roberts, it just didn't fit.

“I hate to say anything negative about what Richard wrote, because he’s a genius, but I hated saying that line,” she told Vanity Fair in 1999. “To me, it was nails on a chalkboard. I don’t really believe any of that.”

4. Her unintentional statement at the premiere.

Iconic image of Julia Roberts at the 1999 premiere. Image: Getty.
ADVERTISEMENT

It's one of the most iconic red carpet moments of the '90s. Julia Roberts at the London premiere of Notting Hill, grinning, waving, showing her armpit hair to the cameras.

While many saw the hair as a deliberate feminist statement, Roberts recently told Busy Philips Tonight that it wasn't intended to be political. It's just who she is.

“I think I just hadn’t really calculated my sleeve length and the waving and how those two things would go together and reveal personal things about me," she laughed.

“So it wasn’t so much a statement as it’s just part of the statement I make as a human on the planet.”

00:00 / ???